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21 November 2011updated 07 Sep 2021 2:35pm

Text-adventures in the classroom

A guest post from a teacher on getting students to learn through computer games.

By Karl Adamson

A guest post from a teacher on getting students to learn through computer games.

In late May, I wrote a piece about games and education policy and the concept of “gamification” — applying the principles that make games so compelling to other aspects of life. After that, I got talking to Karl Adamson, who is both a teacher and an indie game designer. He kindly volunteered to write a blog about his experience of teaching through games, which I am delighted to post here.

In 2008, fresh from being made redundant by Devon and Cornwall constabulary, I enrolled on a teacher-training course. My hopes were high; my bank balance was flush with student loan cash. My days were taken up with a heady mix of teaching, planning, preparation, assessment and long evenings writing up assignments for the University of Plymouth.

Close to Christmas, we were given our main written assignment for the year: finding an aspect of classroom teaching practice that we could personally improve. I racked my brains and, after a time, came up with an idea: not exactly out of the blue but maybe from the blue screen of death on my laptop. I had been playing a (badly programmed) text-adventure that had crashed my computer.

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I began to wonder whether text adventures could be used in English classrooms. If so, how?

For those not “in the know”, text adventures are a very simple form of video game consisting of nothing more than text descriptions of places and situations. The player interacts with the game world by typing in instructions for his or her character to follow. These kinds of games are made or broken on their “parsers” — the range of commands the game understands. Nothing is worse than suffering something like this:

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YOU ARE IN A DARK ROOM. THERE IS A LOCKED DOOR IN THE EAST WALL AND A CHEST IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROOM. WHAT WILL YOU DO, BRAVE ADVENTURER?

> OPEN DOOR

IT IS LOCKED. WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> EXAMINE DOOR

THERE IS NOTHING OF INTEREST. WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> OPEN CHEST

IT IS LOCKED. WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> UNLOCK CHEST

YOU NEED A KEY! WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> UNLOCK DOOR

YOU NEED A KEY! WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> SEARCH ROOM

I DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU WANT ME TO DO. WHAT WILL YOU DO NOW?

> ………. I GIVE UP

Such an exchange between player and game is not uncommon in badly designed text adventures. Many such games insist on using wildly unfair moon logic that would require a halibut, found in a crack in the floor, to be used to refract light from the light bulb and attract the guard beyond into the room.

This would be a considerable obstacle for many of my students. I might be able to cajole them in front of the computer screen and even get them to type in a few commands but, once they tried a few things with no success, I would soon find myself with a room full of unwilling learners.

It was at this point that I decided to create a game myself. Using separate HTML pages linked by hyperlinks I was able to create a choose-your-own-adventure game in the style of the classic books of the same name. The hyperlinks meant that instead of students having to “guess the verb”, they could choose from a list of potential decisions and click that link. This meant that students could never get stuck and so were less likely to take the easy way out by giving up.

My game was called The Haunted Castle and I hoped it would teach students about narrative techniques for writing atmospherically. I had 30 minutes of a lesson to take the class to the computer room and let them loose on the game. The second half of the lesson was back in the classroom; they would be set a writing task related to the game.

The experiment went as smoothly as can be expected in a school environment. Barring a few duff CDs, the game was started up quickly and the students were mostly engaged on the task at hand. Some of the students needed assistance reading the text but there were teaching assistants to help me to guide them through the experience.

Back in the classroom, my pulse was pounding as I began circulating the class, getting feedback from the students for the first time. They were forthright and brutally honest — many of the higher achievers felt the game was a bit lightweight for them.

However, it was a very mixed-ability class from NC levels 4 to 7 and the less able students found the game interesting and a lot less patronising than the usual “educational games” they were subjected to.

The language of the game was, moreover, borne out in the writing of students throughout the class: they had picked up on ideas for descriptive sentences and plot points, suggesting a fairly high level of engagement overall.

This experiment — back in 2009 — was a starting point. Students suggested possible improvements for future games and other uses, such as an interactive Macbeth, where students could play the part of a bystander both observing and affecting the action. I have carried some of these ideas forward into practice. This was also the point at which I realised that I had become irrevocably addicted to designing games and it became both a hobby and an obsession.

On the whole, I believe that games are overlooked as a teaching tool. I think the most important concept is “digital literacy”: young people are much more engaged by interactive means of learning and are comfortable with multitasking on computers in a way that many of their elders are not. That said, I would not push for this to be the sole method of teaching; instead, it should be an addition for subjects that are suitable and particularly when attempting to engage with young people who normally would refuse to participate.

Karl Adamson is a supply teacher specialising in Secondary English. His blog is called Gaming Theory.